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The President’s Best Friend
If he’d been the closest companion of the president of IBM, you might happen across his name in a privately printed memoir. But LeMoyne Billings was John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s best friend from Choate to the White House—and that makes him part of history.
June/july 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 4
Though Lem received his share of Mr. Kennedy’s famous icy looks of disapproval, he never met with the kind of coldness or uninterest that outsiders and a few of Jack’s other friends would later report about encounters with Mr. Kennedy. Probably Mr. Kennedy perceived that Lem’s dedication to Jack and the other children was as strong and enduring as that which any father could hope for his children to have from a friend. A few years later, Lem received a letter from Mr. Kennedy: “Dear Lem, this is as good a time to tell you that the Kennedy children from young Joe down should be very proud to be your friends, because year in and year out you have given them what few people really enjoy. True Friendship. I’m glad we all know you.
MADE IT BY GOD HOW ABOUT YOU , Jack wired to Lem from Hyannis Port on July 23. Lem was extremely anxious. He hadn’t heard anything from the Princeton admissions committee. Another telegram arrived. NO WORD FROM YOU YET VERY NERVOUS WIRE IMMEDIATELY—RIP Rip was Ralph D. Horton, Jr., a close friend of Lem’s and Jack’s who had been nicknamed Public Enemy Number Three during the Mucker Club episode at Choate. All three of them wanted to go to Princeton together. Two days later, Lem was at his mother’s new home in Baltimore when his acceptance to the Class of 1939 finally arrived; it had been sent first to the old address in Pittsburgh. Lem was mightily relieved.
In September, though, Jack announced that he was going to take a year off. His father had encouraged him to broaden his education by studying with the socialist professor Harold J. Laski at the London School of Economics. He cabled Lem: SEND GRAY HAT IMMEDIATELY. SAILING 1045 WEDNESDAY MORNING But in England, Kennedy became sick with jaundice and decided that Princeton’s Indian summer climate was a better place in which to recuperate than the dampness of London. Lem was in high spirits after receiving a wire from Jack on October 21 : ARRIVING PRINCETON THURSDAT AFTERNOON. HOPE YOU CAN ARRANGE ROOMING—KEN .
In the mid-thirties, Princeton undergraduates rented dormitory rooms on the basis of their individual financial capabilities. Wealthy students obtained the choicest suites. Lem, who was on scholarship, could only afford his share of one of the cheaper suites on campus. It was a twobedroom-plus-living-room arrangement on the fourth—and top—floor of South Reunion Hall. It had one closet, one radiator, and it cost $169 a year. Seventy-two steps separated the bedrooms from the bathroom in the cellar.
At first sight, Rip Horton agreed with Lem that the room was “terrible.” Horton, the son of a brewery owner, could have afforded a better suite, but he didn’t mind the place. And Kennedy, when he arrived, didn’t mind either. Living with Billings, they said, was more luxury than anyone could stand. Besides, the view of Nassau Hall across the treetops was magnificent. They made a joke of loudly counting off each step whenever they ascended from the bathroom.
It was a happy but brief autumn for the roommates of 9 South Reunion. By Christmas Jack’s jaundice had forced him to withdraw from the university. “I will always have a very tender spot in my heart for Old Nassau,” Jack later wrote to the class secretary.
The two friends began a feisty correspondence of telegrams. They sent so many wires back and forth that they became friendly with the postal telegraph manager in Princeton, an elderly woman named Mrs. Warren. HELLO MRS WARREN began Jack’s seventy-four-word message inviting Lem to Palm Beach for Christmas. ISN’T HE SWEET GIVE HIM MY LOVE was the message Mrs. Warren appended at the bottom of Jack’s telegram before delivering it to Lem. After a volley of wires discussing Lem’s financial uncertainty about the round-trip bus fare, a compromise was negotiated. Jack cabled: WILL PAY HALF OF BUS TICKET COMMA MY SHARE THUS AMOUNTING TO FIFTEEN SMACKEROOS … LET ME KNOW WHEN YOU ARRIVE HELLO MRS WARREN STOP—SWEET ESSENCE OF BUTTERMILK MERCY .
The Kennedys’ house in Palm Beach was a large, elegant white stucco villa facing the ocean. There was a well-tended lawn bordered by a seawall planted with tall royal palms; a series of front-shaded patios; a Grecian swimming pool. Beside the pool was a sun deck surrounded on all sides by tall adobe walls. This solarium, known as the Bullpen, contained cushioned benches, wicker furniture, and a telephone. It was here that Joseph P. Kennedy took the sun and conducted his business affairs by telephone, in privacy, and, sometimes, in the altogether.
Despite his continual bus-fare difficulties, Lem was a veteran of enough Palm Beach visits to know that under no circumstance was one allowed to enter or even look into the Bullpen when J. P. K. was there. During working hours, the door to the Bullpen was kept locked, and there was to be no noise in the pool area. So it was with not a little horror that Lem listened one sunny day to a proposition of Jack’s.